The shoes, as worn by stars such as Andre Agassi (above), use a gas which fills the cushioned heels and soles, giving them buoyancy. The gas is far more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Embarrassed Nike executives, who pride themselves on being environmentally responsible, have promised to phase out the use of the substance sulphur hexafluoride, or SF6, within three years. Two-thirds of the shoes sold by Nike use the gas. The range, led by Air Max, went on sale in 1978.
The company uses 288 tonnes of SF6 a year, a gas which stays in the atmosphere for 3,200 years, 30 years longer than carbon dioxide.
The switch from SF6 to nitrogen has been welcomed by environmentalists. Tarjei Haaland, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said: "It's a strong and very persistent gas and making shoes is a stupid use for it. It's excellent that they are phasing it out but why not 100 per cent by next year?"
Graham Anderson, a Nike spokesman, said that while world leaders had given themselves 15 years to cut in greenhouse gases, Nike had decided on a total phase out by 2001.